Daniel Kaluuya

Judas and the Black Messiah

25/03/21

Apple TV

The ‘Judas’ in this story is Bill O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield), a petty car thief who habitually pretends to be an FBI officer in order to ply his trade. Arrested by the police, he’s approached by genuine FBI Agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who points out that O’Neil is now facing a lengthy stretch in prison – six months for stealing a car and five to six years for impersonating an officer.

Or, he might prefer to do the Feds a favour and become their snitch, posing as a member of the burgeoning Black Panther movement. Agree to that and he can walk free.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bill chooses the latter option and, provided with a decent automobile by his new chums, he’s soon acting as driver to the ‘Messiah’ of the story – Black Panther Chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Hampton is a charismatic and influential mouthpiece, who has his eyes resolutely fixed on the emancipation of Black America. With this in mind, he sets about uniting the various gangs of the city into something he calls The Rainbow Coalition. The white powers-that-be are getting decidedly nervous as the Panthers’ power steadily grows and, of course, there will be consequences…

Shaka King’s slickly directed film is set in a grimy, neon-lit vision of Chicago in the 1960s, an urban powder keg perpetually battered by rain; the city almost becomes another character in the narrative. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Plemons’ smug and smirking Roy Mitchell looks uncannily like Donald Trump and that Martin Sheen’s oily turn as J. Edgar Hoover eerily evokes the oleaginous style of Rudy Giuliani – but I’m inclined to think otherwise. At any rate, the screenplay makes no bones about it. These are power-mad Machiavellian types, who will stop at nothing to assert their absolute authority.

Daniel Kaluuya’s career has soared meteorically since starring in Get Out and he certainly makes the most of his role here. Hamptons incendiary sermons make it easy to understand why he holds so much sway over his disciples – and why the white rulers of America are terrified of his influence. Little wonder the performance has generated substantial Oscar buzz. Stanfield too is excellent in what is arguably the more difficult role, clearly showing in every frame how conflicted his character is, how degraded by participation in Mitchell’s schemes. As well as providing a thrilling narrative, Judas and the Black Messiah is also extremely informative, filling in many of the gaps in my knowledge of the Black Panther movement. When I was a youngster, its members were always painted as evil troublemakers. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that right was on their side.

The list of injustices meted out to Black Panther members is long and shameful – a callous list of beatings, wrongful imprisonments and murders, mostly inflicted on people whose main ambition was to be free. It’s sometimes hard to believe that the incidents portrayed here happened in my own lifetime – and it’s also sobering to reflect that so little has changed since then.

And, lest I try to console myself by saying, ‘well, it was another time,’ the film’s poignant coda reveals exactly what happened to O’Neil, decades after the turbulent events portrayed here.

Shame is clearly something that lasts a lifetime.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Queen & Slim

31/01/20

In one scene in Queen & Slim, a character refers to the two leads as ‘the black Bonnie and Clyde’ – and it’s true that the spirit of Arthur Penn’s notorious 1967 crime drama hangs inescapably over this production. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that, while Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were small time opportunist crooks whose legend outgrew them, Angela Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) are just two young black people in the wrong place at the wrong time. As for that odd title, we don’t even learn the characters’ real names until the film’s conclusion. Quite how they earn their titular monikers is anybody’s guess, but I’ll go with it for simplicity’s sake.

When we first encounter Queen and Slim, they are in Cleveland, Ohio, and struggling through an awkward first date, arranged via Tinder. She is a lawyer, miserable after losing a court case, and seeking solace from human company. He is just a happy-go-lucky guy, hoping for a bit of love action and refusing to complain when the scrambled eggs he’s ordered are delivered fried. As a couple, they aren’t exactly hitting it off, so they get into Slim’s car and head for Queen’s apartment, where Slim is clearly still hoping that things might develop further.

But the situation goes catastrophically awry when they are pulled over for a minor traffic violation and a racist white cop pulls a gun on them. In  the ensuing confusion, Queen is grazed by a bullet and, in self-defence, Slim shoots the officer dead.

Slim is all for calling the cops and facing the music, but Queen assures him that no black man can ever hope for a fair trial in such a situation. She ought to know; this is her area of expertise. She insists that they get in the car and drive South to New Orleans. They even discuss the possibility of crossing the water to Cuba.

And so a long Southbound odyssey begins. The couple encounter various characters along the way, and there’s a notable stopover with Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a gold-adorned pimp who owes Queen a major favour. Wherever they go, they realise that people are recognising them despite the fact that they have taken steps to radically change their appearances. It transpires that footage from the dead cop’s dashboard cam has somehow found its way onto social media and gone viral. Support for the fugitives begins to grow across America. Meanwhile, the police are attempting to track them down and have even offered a substantial reward for information leading to their arrest.

This is mostly an entertaining road trip with a powerful central message about inequality. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are engaging performers and, as the couple’s relationship begins to blossom, so we begin to learn a little more about them. Melina Matsoukis’s direction is pretty solid too, though – on what is her first feature film – she makes a few missteps, sometimes allowing the momentum to stall, occasionally trying little arty flourishes that don’t quite come off . Furthermore, the screenplay by Lena Waithe contains elements that don’t always entirely convince: occasionally there’s the feeling that certain details may have been lost in the edit. The film’s conclusion feels somehow horribly inevitable. Would it have been more empowering to buck the trend and offer something a tad more optimistic?

Still, for a debut feature, this is pretty impressive stuff and feels like another useful addition to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Get Out

19/03/17

Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is what he calls a ‘social thriller’ – and it’s a very successful slice of film.

When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya)’s girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) invites him to spend the weekend visiting her parents, he’s happy to go along, but cautions, “Have you told them that I’m black?” Rose laughs, insisting that her parents are open-minded and not racists: “Dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.” Ouch. And at first, this is what the film appears to be: a social satire, highlighting the awkward ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking that characterises white liberal ‘tolerance.’ Chris has to grit his teeth and respond politely every time his apparently well-meaning  hosts shoe-horn references to black sports stars and actors into their conversations with him, every time they make assumptions about his interests or his physicality.

And yet, it’s more than that. Who are the mysterious black servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel)? And why are they so creepy? There are shades of The Stepford Wives at play here, though Peele’s story takes the idea in an entirely new direction. When Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) hypnotises Chris, ostensibly to help him quit smoking, events take a decidedly sinister turn, and Chris begins to realise that this white, middle-class, lefty suburb is a very dangerous place for a person of colour.

Despite its serious message, Get Out has a real lightness of touch, which makes its revelation of uncomfortable truths both palatable and crystal clear. There’s humour too – real laugh out loud stuff – provided primarily by LilRel Howery as Chris’s best friend, Rod.  It’s a gift of a role and the actor clearly revels in it.

Okay, so if I’m honest I’d have liked a few more jump-scares. But all in all, this is a cracking film with a brutal originality at its heart.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield